|Lin made an impact on the court in 2011, but will he be worth $25.1 million? (Getty Images)|
NEW YORK -- First, let me pay Jeremy Lin the highest compliment. He is like politics. Reasonable people can look at the same set of his facts and draw wildly different conclusions.
Not a variety of conclusions, mind you. Only two, really. The Knicks' decision not to match Houston's offer sheet for Lin Tuesday was either the height of sensibility or downright scandalous. There is no in between. True to the current state of our societal discourse, it is either right or wrong. As in, I am right and you are wrong; you are dumb and I am smart. Or vice versa, on both counts.
And so it goes, as the late, great Kurt Vonnegut used to say.
As with most things, the Lin issue isn't quite that simple. It involves the entanglement of numerous truths, half-truths and lies of basketball, sports business, social media phenomena and pop culture all rolled into one. It involves the financial and political realities of Madison Square Garden, from whence the decision came Tuesday to pull the plug on Linsanity. And if you've ever been sucked into that MSG vortex, or simply viewed it spinning out of control from afar, you know that up is down and down is up in that world, forever and ever.
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But here's what we know: The Houston Rockets, flailing in their latest attempt at reinvention, made Lin and offer he couldn't refuse -- indeed, an offer none of us would have refused. They took advantage of a quirky and arguably counterproductive loophole in the NBA compensation paradigm to present Lin with a three-year offer sheet as a restricted free agent that would pay him $5 million next season, $5.2 million the season after that and $14.9 million the season after that.
Close to the maximum pro basketball salary allowed for a player who has started 25 games in his NBA life.
Appropriately enough, this goofy loophole is named after Gilbert Arenas, one of the goofiest adult males ever to participate in the NBA labor market. The Rockets put an offer in writing to Lin, and effectively forced the Knicks to examine the two polarizing viewpoints as far as Lin's immediate future as a prolific, All-Star caliber point guard and said, in the immortal words of Arenas, "Pick one."
The Knicks chose a viewpoint Tuesday, and their referendum on Lin was a resounding one. And they are either wrong or dumb, and can't possibly be smart or right, according to the current dynamic of our intellectual approach to such matters. There is no in between on the Knicks' decision to let Lin make his millions in Houston rather than New York, even though the variables that went into the decision are so disparate and virtually impossible to isolate that no one can say for sure that the Rockets are right to do this. Only that the Knicks are wrong for not doing it.
And that black-and-white interpretation of the Lin scenario is so unfair to the facts, not to mention impervious to the inconclusive nature of those facts, that it has made a mockery of the Lindecision -- if I may be afforded one last play on words in honor of what was an exhilarating, if brief and ultimately unrewarding period in New York basketball and sports cultural history.
Since everyone, including my astute and thoughtful colleague, Gregg Doyel, is so quick to conclude that the Knicks are wrong here, may I simply pose the question differently? May I simply ask if anyone can give me a straight answer to the following question?
If the Knicks are wrong, does that mean, in turn, that the Rockets are right?
In other words, does logic follow that Jeremy Lin will be a $14.9 million basketball player three years from now? Can anyone say that with certainty?
The truth is, no one can; not even the Rockets. What the Rockets did here was the basketball equivalent of naked shortselling or some other devious mechanism of the financial markets that so obviously have failed us over the past four years. The Rockets are Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns on this particular transaction, and it isn't so much a question of who wins the modern-day press conference on Twitter but who foots the bill down the road.
Or, to put it in terms that all of us can easily understand, I defer to the great basketball philosopher, Carmelo Anthony, who aptly branded the Rockets' offer for Lin "ridiculous." Leave it to Melo to boil down the NBA's debate of the day into a single word that nails it.
I agree with Melo. To put the Rockets' decision in terms that are more suited to our current 30-second news cycle: That was a clown offer, bro.
More to the point, here is what we know about Jeremy Lin. He came off the bench in a game on Feb. 4 against the Nets, and singlehandedly was the reason the Knicks won. He had 25 points and seven assists. I will never forget experiencing this delightful basketball moment in the stands with my family. Nor will I forget the angst I felt about attending that game as a spectator. Why, you ask? Because I was afraid that if the Knicks lost, then the coach, Mike D'Antoni, would be fired, and I would have to put down my chicken sandwich and get to work.
But the coach wasn't fired, and Lin went on a statistical and culturally important rampage the likes of which no one had ever witnessed before. He won his first six starts, putting up numbers that were historically important and unheard of. And other than five minutes, 49 seconds in the first of those starts, Lin did it without Anthony, who injured his groin in the first quarter of the Utah game on Feb. 6.
The Knicks had traded for Anthony a year earlier before anyone knew Jeremy Lin existed -- including a team Lin had played for, the Houston Rockets. Anthony came back Feb. 20 against the same New Jersey Nets that Lin had dominated in his unforeseen debut, and the Knicks proceeded to lose eight of their next 10 games. D'Antoni, the coach for whom Lin was perfect in every way and vice versa, stepped down March 14, at which point Lin and Anthony managed to win six of seven games together under interim (and now permanent) head coach Mike Woodson before Lin would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.
These were the data upon which the Knicks were forced by the buffoonish and appropriately named Arenas rule to base the decision of whether Lin would be worthy of a $14.9 million salary three seasons from now. The body of successful work amounted to 14 games -- the smallest of sample sizes culled from the shortest NBA season in 13 years due to the lockout.
And for this, we conclude that the Rockets have it right and the Knicks have it wrong? Talk about intellectually lazy and dishonest.
Factor in what it's really about -- what it's always about in sports, the money -- and we see no further evidence of the Rockets' supposed brilliance and the Knicks' buffoonery. Assuming Lin's entire $15 million salary in 2014-15 would be taxable -- a logical conclusion, since the Knicks already have four other players on the books that season totaling $65 million -- then the real cost of his services in the balloon-payment year would be $43 million. That's $15 million in salary and $28 million in luxury tax based essentially on a 14-game run of success -- the smallest of sample sizes culled from the shortest NBA season in 13 years, half with one coach and half with another.
Not to mention that Anthony, for better or worse the Knicks' most accomplished and highest-paid commodity from this day forward, was fully available for eight of them.
Now, anyone who wants to is free to ridicule the Knicks for choosing Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler over Lin, but that's the easy way out. All three were acquired in the Knicks' attempt to assemble a trio of proven, accomplished All-Star players long before Linsanity was part of the vernacular. And among them, they have 2,183 NBA games -- regular season and playoffs -- on their résumés, along with 11 All-Star appearances. Jeremy Lin has 64 games and 25 starts on his résumé -- and let us all hope, by the way, that his résumé grows and improves and that he becomes a player worthy of the Lehman Brothers-inspired, Gilbert Arenas-infused contract that the Rockets are awarding him. Not based on his objective value, mind you, but based on a loophole in the rules.
Think of it this way: If Donnie Walsh had decided not to clear cap space and make a run at LeBron James in 2010 because he had a premonition that some anonymous point guard named Jeremy Lin would burst onto the scene at some undetermined point in the future and garner a $15 million salary offer from the Houston Rockets as a restricted free agent, he would've been escorted to the nearest retirement home or Bingo hall.
And in a fitting twist to this saga -- this phenomena known as Linsanity, which may endure and may not -- that's all they're talking about in the retirement homes and Bingo halls and everywhere else in New York now. How could the Knicks let Jeremy Lin go?
In Houston and elsewhere, when will they be asking how the Rockets could pay Jeremy Lin $15 million? When will we be asking if the Rockets are right, instead of just asking if the Knicks are wrong? Not today. But then, these debates are never settled when we want them to be and the answer is never as obvious as it seems.